Canyon Thoughts III

For the month of June (and some of July) I’ll be working as a cook at Laity Lodge Youth Camp. I’ll only get on the internet once or twice during that time, but when I do I’ll try and post something about life in the canyon. They aren’t really planned or profound, just whatever comes to mind.

I’ve actually been back from camp for over a week. So I guess this is more of a retrospective.

Good good-byes matter a lot to me. When the half-summer camp staff left, I was grateful that there was time for purposeful farewells scheduled. I didn’t feel the need to linger, but I wanted to have a clear and intentional parting with certain people who were leaving as I stayed. A time set apart. For words, smiles, hands, hugs, and even tears for some.

My own departure was more difficult for me.

A breakfast on the same porch by the river where I first had breakfast in this canyon nearly 10 months ago. A detour by the guys’ morning cookout – the first breakfast that I cooked this summer (migas, outdoors, on an iron skillet). A few notes dropped in mailboxes, a lent book returned. And finally, a poignant parting with the kitchen and all who work there. The paradox of love is that, when it is lavished on you, you feel lifted higher and higher, but humbled to be given such graces. I drove out of the canyon with windows down, stereo quiet, and singing. It seemed right.

I thank God for the grace of good-byes
For the poignancy of parting, the lingering love as of a just-kissed cheek,
When words fail to rise, when language cannot encapsulate,
That we should have the gifts of love-brimmed
hearts pressed to hearts
hands to hands
and lips to cheeks
So that our heavied souls yet rise still.

That reddened eyes miraculously surrender
Tears, joining the company of desert rocks and baptismal shells;
Water and words, signposts of love.
The blessing at departure couple themselves
With the hopes of greetings to come.
But within our papery selves is the
Spoken into, dwelling in, written upon;
A greater River than tears suggest,
Stirring us further with the knowing beyond knowledge
That we shall meet once more
On eternal shores.
(Fare well, farewell; God be with you, good-bye.)


Canyon Thoughts II

For the month of June (and some of July) I’ll be working as a cook at Laity Lodge Youth Camp. I’ll only get on the internet once or twice during that time, but when I do I’ll try and post something about life in the canyon. They aren’t really planned or profound, just whatever comes to mind.

This bowled me over yesterday: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Heb. 13:2, KJV)

It wasn’t a focus verse for a devotion or nightly lesson, it just came to mind. Angels had come up briefly in a conversation some fellow cooks and I had had earlier in the day, but nothing more than that.

I had just spent most of the afternoon grilling a few hundred hamburger patties alongside one of the kindest gentlemen I’ve ever met. As the campers finished up dinner and continued to enjoy the swimming hole, us kitchen staff drove back. I showered extensively to get the charcoal-beef smell off a bit, and it was as I was drying off that the verse hit me: “…some have entertained angels unawares.” I stopped and stared at myself in the mirror awhile. Not because I thought I’d just fed an angel or two – though I do not believe it impossible – but because I realized this was something we need to keep in mind.

Why don’t we take this more seriously? The ancient Greek myths are full of this sort of mystery: gods come to men as beggars, good men treat them well, the wicked turn them away and curse them. And in the old stories, both sorts of men usually reaped what they sowed.

But here’s what’s more: I don’t think we should need the awe of hidden angels to spurn us to serve well, to welcome strangers, to craft hospitality. For each man, woman, and child you shall ever meet is something other than an angel, but awe-inspiring. They are each an immortal soul, destined to be “immortal horrors or everlasting splendours,” as Lewis says. They are made in the image of God. That, I think, is more than enough.

Canyon Thoughts

For the month of June (and some of July) I’ll be working as a cook at Laity Lodge Youth Camp. I’ll only get on the internet once or twice during that time, but when I do I’ll try and post something about life in the canyon. They aren’t really planned or profound, just whatever comes to mind.

One thing I love about working in some sort of service where you use your hands is the moment when you can consider the product as a whole and think “I touched all of that.”

For example, last summer I worked as a dishwasher for a time in a restaurant. I realized at one point that I had worked enough shifts to, with confidence, say I’d touched every plate, bowl, and cup in the restaurant. I wasn’t necessarily proud – nor ashamed for that matter – of the fact. It was just a neat little tipping point of familiarity and laboring community.

Yesterday morning, I took up the task of cutting all the pineapple and washing all the raspberries that went into the fruit bowls that we serve at breakfast. It’s work I really enjoy for a number of reasons. For one, you get a rhythm to it that’s almost like a prayer. Also, after seeing a few dozen pineapples over the week, there’s a moment when you realize how hilarious a pineapple looks. Really, buy one, stare at it for a while. I literally laughed out loud yesterday.

After I stirred the tart red berries into the bright yellow acidic cubes, put the cut top of the pineapple in the center of the bowl (it’s a thing I like to do. It’s exotic or something), and covered the bowls with saran wrap, I moved on. But I did so with the knowledge that if anybody ate fruit that morning, I had touched it. There’s something personal there – it’s more than just a Look what I did moment. It actually moves me profoundly; I’m thankful I get the chance to do that.

Heaven Means You Can’t Stay

This week I heard the story of a recently deceased 7-year-old boy who fought valiantly and jubilantly against cancer. The idea alone rends your heart; it’s one of those remainders in any account of life that assures you that something isn’t entirely right with the world. But I was told of a dialogue that occurred when he discussed just what his terminal disease would mean:

Do you know what’s happening?
You know you’re going to Heaven?
Do you know what that means?
It means I can’t stay.

It’s cheap to use a dying child’s words as an illustration. But it’s unjust to not weigh carefully in our hearts the truth that comes in innocence; the wisdom spoken by children beyond most adults’ reckoning. It’s flippant to manipulate his words; it’s cowardly to ignore what we can learn from them. I pray for the care to avoid the former and the courage to seek the latter.

Heaven means you can’t stay. There’s an otherness to It that we’ve always known. That fiery chariot swings low and carries Elijah away to Heaven (2 Kings 2:11-12). Jesus ascends beyond the disciples’ sight, taken up to return again in the same way (Acts 1:9-11). There’s a river deep and wide and a distant shore. (I’ve linked to two old slave spirituals, by the way. Listen to them.) This boy knew that death is less of a finality and more of a moving on elsewhere.

But there’s more here than just the presence of life and the otherness of death, I think, that shouldn’t be ignored. Going to Heaven means, of course, that you can’t stay here. But Heaven itself, the very fact that it is, demands motion. Jesus taught men to pray these words (Matt. 6:9-10):

Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

Those of us who pray these words ask for a great invasion. That the other, the elsewhere, the holiness of Heaven, be here. This prayer asks for Heaven, and Heaven means you can’t stay. We call upon a Father and a King who is There. His very name we acknowledge as set apart, as sacred, as hallowed. And then we ask for such an invasion. That that kingdom overrule this one.

But that means Heaven, and Heaven means you can’t stay.

Heaven’s invasion, spearheaded by the One with the spear-pierced side, entails motion on the part of us temporarily earth-bound. It demands motion before the gentle swaying motion of the ferry that travels to eternal shores. “Your will be done” is a surrender of territory, a declaration of allegiance; it is to pray, “I will do your heavenly will here on earth.” It’s the same prayer the Virgin Mary prays: “be it unto me.”

But this means you can’t stay. When Heaven brushes up against earth, when a little of the veil is pulled back so that shepherds see an angelic multitude (Luke 2:9-15), you won’t be the same. Shepherds go to Bethlehem, Elisha takes up his master’s mantle and crosses back over Jordan, the disciples go down the mountain back to Jerusalem, the virgin is with child. But each and all are transformed; they aren’t entirely who they were. Maybe this is part of the reason angels always tell us to not be afraid when they appear: though we may want to stay, Heaven has drawn close, and that means we can’t. But it is for the better.

A final short thought: in the past few weeks I have seen many mourn, the friends and family of this boy and others, and I have joined with them. Departure hurts. Elisha rends his clothes after Elijah is taken up, though he is allowed to see his teacher and friend go up by a whirlwind. There is a vacuum left, and I know little to do but weep together.

The Walls of the Church

I’m taking part in a conversation about the Church with 54  authors over the course of 25 days. Here’s an excerpt from my part of the “At the Lord’s Table” series:

In Augustine’s Confessions, the bishop-to-be describes an exchange between two men, Simplicianus and Victorinus. Victorinus reads and studies Scripture thoroughly, and has just privately confided to his friend that he now believes himself to be a Christian, though he has not said so publicly:

Simplicianus answered: “I shall not believe it nor count you among Christians unless I see you in the Church of Christ.” Victorinus asked with some faint mockery: “Then is it the walls that make Christians?” He went on saying that he was a Christian, and Simplicianus went on with the same denial, and Victorinus always repeated his retort about the walls.

Is it the walls that make Christians?

My answer, when I first read this, was “no.” I was quite pleased with Victorinus’s reply – who is Simplicianus to say whether Victorinus is a Christian or not? The Church isn’t about a building, it’s about the people gathered inside, worshipping God. Bricks and mortar can’t contain worship; if anything, church should be boundless. If Victorinus says he’s a Christian, then the truth of his confession lies between him and God. Christ makes the faithful Christians, not walls.

Is it the walls that make Christians?

The answer, though Simplicianus never utters it, is “Yes.”

To read the rest of my post, go here. To learn more about the “At the Lord’s Table” series and read some of the other entries, go here.

Old Long Since

I was asked last week by my friend Kevin which New Years Eve was my favorite. He was asking to prove the point, I think, that as far as celebrations go, New Years is a bit over-hyped. I offered him a New Years that we had shared about 2 years ago that wasn’t actually that great. I mainly picked it because, well, it didn’t suck.

But I made the wrong choice. I didn’t really remember rightly. There are a blur of New Years in my childhood that are, by far, the best I’ve had. And quite likely will have.

We would meet up with the family of my childhood best friend. Each year we’d alternate whose house we would meet at, but they all kind of melt into each other for me. At his house we were outside the city limits, so those were the years we had fireworks. The hours before dinner, while it was still light, we’d spend either out on their netted-in trampoline, or in the driveway throwing the small white poppers, littering their thin paper and sawdust packaging on the pavement. After dinner, we’d go back onto the trampoline, inventing games or just bouncing and watching the earliest of the fireworks light the air. When the grown-ups were ready, it would be time for the real fireworks – sparklers tracing circles in the air, roman candles, firecrackers, smoke bombs. Finally, we’d try and time both a toast of champagne and the lighting of a “grand finale” as close as possible to when it was “really” midnight. The kitchen would be filled with a song of chinking glasses – everybody had to cheers every other person.

At our house the routine – and so the feel of the entire evening – was completely different. We’d probably occupy ourselves with some game upstairs before dinner (fighting tournaments seemed to be immensely popular). But the thing I remember most about the nights at our house was playing tag in the front yard. Our Christmas lights would still be up. They challenged and enchanted us. We would have to be aware of where the strands of lights marked the perimeter of the yard; where a power chord suspended itself over a stone path. But the whole front yard, and us in it, was constantly illuminated. Everything glowed with the soft and permeating light of a lingering Christmas. We’d leap above the lights – wild-people leaping and dancing around and over a fire; sprites in some mythical dance or play.

These were my best New Years. Taking long drafts of sparkling grape juice, and careful sips of actual champagne. Delighting in the magic of fire in our hands, playing tirelessly by the light beneath our feet. Leaping higher and higher on a trampoline, lit by the greens, blues, and reds glowing in the sky thanks to everyone who didnt know to save “the best ones” for midnight. Sure, arguments would invariably arise each year, but they’d be mended within the hour. Once a dog bit my brother in fright, but I believe he recovered from the shock by midnight.

These are the nights I have longed for and missed these past New Years. The lightness, the indefatigable play, the magic and enchantment, the persistence of happiness, the quickness of forgiveness, the prompt passing of hurt feelings. The bizarre and familiar delight of unique and annual lights in the common darkness. I think almost every New Years Eve since I’ve tried in my heart to make like those nights. I’m very fond of them and the memories I have of them.

We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.

This isn’t nostalgia. It isn’t wishing to be in the old times, much as I love their memory. We are where we are. I haven’t tried to mimic those nights in the nights to follow, but I’ve sought that same spirit, the same heart to them. And though they’ve passed, let’s take a cup of kindness each for old times long since. Cheers.

“Wreath Kin”

Craft me as the pine, dear Love,
So that I point to sky above.
And by deep root in earth below,
May I stand firm and slowly grow.

In cold and dark stay ever green,
As once I was in happy spring.
When wet, bear needles diamond-strung;
And dry, may cracks of praise be sung.

Should trunk with stone be felled and torn,
May lights my broken limbs adorn.

This sealed heart melt – my resined cone,
So that Love’s seed from me be sown.

From spilled sap-blood and broken pines
May fresh and sweet aromas rise.
And when I am consumed in fire,

May new life in my death find sire.

Look! Over there!

Check out a post I wrote over at the “Next Disciples” blog about non-existent free lunches and evangelism: “We know TINSTAAFL, and maybe TINSTAAFWB. Surely at least TISTAFL?

I wonder if I like thunderstorms
Because the fear I feel is something like
The fear I’d feel
If I saw an angel.

A love letter

To those who traveled, labored, ate, laughed, cried, and prayed together over the last week at the Group Workcamp in Valdosta, Georgia:

Do you know what joy is? Have you felt it?

We may be using the same word for two different things, so let me tell you what I mean by “joy” in this instance (which is different from the dictionary, I realize). I don’t mean happiness “times ten.” Or twenty. Or even fifty. It’s a feeling close to happiness, but very different. It’s happiness to the point of longing, almost sadness. Sometimes to the point of sickness. I suppose a close feeling is unrequited love – a happy longing that hurts almost. But even those aren’t the same.

Let me give you an example. I feel joy at a number of natural things. Pecan trees planted in rows stretching to the horizon, for example. I want to make the moment of seeing them eternal sometimes, because I love it. I want to, somehow at the same time, be the pecan trees in rows and have them and look at them. I want to experience them more fully than I can. And they stir a longing in my heart that has nothing to do with how they look. They stir my longing for eternity.

You see, God has “set eternity” in my heart as well as yours (Ecclesiastes 3:11). But, being the human beings that we are, we can’t fill that longing; that infinite groove in our hearts. But when we come up against it, we’re stirred. When “Heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss” our “hearts turn violently inside of” our chests. And that, right now, is what I mean by joy. I think as Christians we should, and perhaps do, feel a frequent tingling of that greatest unforeseen kiss – Heaven meeting earth as the immortal God becomes the mortal Incarnation.

This last week I was left reeling by joy as I was blind-sided by such a kiss. I was sick with it; happily, happily sick. To be with each of you who sought to serve Christ by giving your hands, your feet, and the sweat of your brows to labor excellently made me very, very joyful. For when our hands take on blisters, cuts, and bruises as we suffer for love they become a bit more like the pierced hands of Christ.  And to the extent that you scraped, primed, painted, hammered, cut, planned, and built for one of those children of Christ, even the least of them, you did it for Him too (Matthew 25:34-40).

I’m struggling to express how thankful I am to have traveled with you to Valdosta. In the past days, I’ve happily cherished the memories of our trip. I think and pray of you fondly, and will continue to do so. For when I see your faces, when I remember, when I think and pray, I feel that longing of joy. I felt it acutely last Friday night when our labors were finished. For being with you, thinking of you, gives me a glimpse of eternity, a glimpse of that eternal love. It inspires that far, deep, mysterious longing. And it stirs up a whole lot of love. You are each “fearfully and wonderfully made,” “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Psalm 139:14, Ephesians 2:10). I’m grateful to have walked this part with you.

With love in Him,


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